Success at playing blackjack can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but there can be no question that team blackjack play changed the game forever. The largest profits ever made at the blackjack table have been made by teams of skilled players who pooled their mental and financial resources to beat the casinos at blackjack.
Blackjack teams have been immortalized in major motion pictures and books based on their legendary exploits. Perhaps the most famous of these is the movie 21 which told the story of the MIT blackjack team. Even though Hollywood films tend to dramatize actual events, the story of team blackjack play is one that all blackjack players will enjoy. You may also be interested in reading about The Church Team!
The History of Team Blackjack
You could almost say that team blackjack began out of greed and necessity. A few professional card counters emerged onto the blackjack scene after the publication of Edward O. Thorp’s Beat the Dealer. These players were beating the casinos for a lot of money on a regular basis and the casinos were none too happy about it.
Card counting in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a dangerous business. If you were caught, getting banned was the least of your worries. The casinos took great pleasure in teaching card counters a lesson by administering brutal beatings. The card counters knew that they had to find new ways to avoid detection.
They also knew that the money they were making was just a drop in the bucket compared with what they could be making. A single player could only play so many hands in a day and had to move between various casinos to keep from getting caught. This limited the amount of money a card counter could make.
One of the most skilled card counters of this era was Al Francesco. Francesco was making a healthy living playing blackjack and counting cards. Then, almost overnight, Francesco was identified as a card counter and his options became severely limited. In Francesco’s day a company called Griffin Investigations was tasked with rooting out card counters and other casino cheaters. The company worked for numerous casinos and created the legendary Griffin Book. The Griffin Book was a list of known card counters and other cheats who had been targeted for removal from the casinos.
Getting your name in the Griffin Book was the kiss of death. The casinos shared information with one another. If your name wound up in that book then all of the casinos would be aware of your card counting activities, making it impossible for you to play anywhere in Las Vegas.
Francesco knew that if he did not devise a new method of counting cards his days of professional blackjack were over. He took a break and began to develop the core concepts of team blackjack play.
Team Blackjack and the Big Player
Al Francesco designed a method of team blackjack play which was successfully used for decades by many powerful blackjack teams, including the MIT team. Everything began with recruiting the right players for the team.
A team typically would consist of about 10 players. Of these 10, nine of them were tasked with what is known as back counting. These nine players would cruise the blackjack pit looking for tables that had a high, profitable count. They would sit down to play at a blackjack table and only bet the minimum amount while tracking the count.
When the count became very high, the player would then use a signal to alert the 10th member of the blackjack team. This member was the key to the whole operation, and was known as the Big Player.
The Big Player’s job was to cruise the blackjack pit looking for the signal from another member of the team. When the signal was received the Big Player would sit down and perfectly play the role of a tourist or first-time gambler. They would create cover stories such as being a rich executive in Las Vegas for a business conference or a millionaire on vacation. They bet large amounts of money but no one questioned them because they were not a familiar face in the casino. By the time a casino figured out what was happening it was too late. The Big Player had won hundreds of thousands and gone on to the next casino.
Choosing the Big Player was the most important part of building a blackjack team. The Big Player had to be extremely skilled at card counting and very self-disciplined. They could not give into the temptation to gamble and they could not draw attention to themselves. A very few card counter had the skills necessary to be a big player.
Francesco needed a Big Player for his team and he found one in a young New Yorker who had a razor-sharp mind and the guts to play big.
Uston Kills the Golden Goose
Ken Uston was recruited by Al Francesco to be one of Francesco’s first Big Players. Uston was young and very skilled at card counting. He had all the skills necessary to make Francesco’s team a success. With Uston trained and ready to go, Francesco’s team hit the blackjack tables.
The team was immediately successful. They were winning more money than any of them had ever won on their own. Even so, Al Francesco had spotted a problem. His Big Player seemed headed for trouble.
Uston was a genius at card counting, but he was at times indiscreet. It almost seemed that Ken Uston thrived on the prestige that he thought came with being a professional blackjack player. Sometimes he would let down his guard and do things that risked the detection of the team. Francesco counseled the young Uston and was a mentor for him. This seemed to work and Uston calmed down.
Then, Uston did something that ultimately ended his association with the blackjack team and almost destroyed his relationship with Francesco. Uston decided to write a book about his exploits as Francesco’s Big Player. In the book, Uston revealed almost every secret of the team and even identified other members. He was paid a significant amount of money for writing the book, but the price he paid was even higher.
Francesco’s team was essentially outed by the book and the casinos became wise. The team was now on the radar and could not play in Las Vegas without being detected. The other members of the team shunned Uston and ultimately the team was destroyed because of Uston’s desire to become a celebrity. In the beginning, Francesco was mad at Uston but eventually forgave him.
In the years that followed, Uston successfully ran his own teams in Atlantic City until he was caught and banned from the casinos. Uston challenged the casinos’ actions in court and eventually won a Supreme Court decision. Even so, the damage was done. Uston left the country and headed for France. With nowhere to play in the United States and very few opportunities overseas, Uston began a downward spiral that culminated in his death. Many have speculated that Uston’s death was very suspicious. Some even claim that he was killed by the Mafia or perhaps even disgruntled card counters who were affected by the publication of his book.
MIT Students Reinvent Blackjack Team Play
In the 1980’s a group of college students from MIT and Harvard decided to try their hand at playing team blackjack. Their story has become legendary and the students became arguably the most successful blackjack team in history.
Armed with sharp mathematical minds and a group of investors that supplied huge gambling capital, the students from MIT attacked the Casinos in Atlantic City with a vengeance. For almost twenty years the team won millions of dollars at blackjack.
The MIT team basically copied Francesco’s method with very little alterations. They used the concept of the Big Player. The difference was that the MIT team had more than one Big Player. There were usually at least two of them and they could alternate their trips to the casino. This gave them added protection against being discovered by the casinos.
In truth, the MIT blackjack team could have probably continued forever. The players were smart, however, and most of them simply used their blackjack profits to pay for school and go on to productive careers in other fields. A few of the members still play blackjack, but most of them took their money and walked away.
Team Blackjack Today
There are still a few blackjack teams which operate today, but the glory days of team blackjack ended as casinos began to implement measures which made it more difficult to count cards.
One of the most damaging methods initiated by the casinos has been the introduction of automatic shufflers. These machines are capable of shuffling the entire shoe after each and every hand. Doing this makes card counting impossible because a counter can never establish the penetration needed to get an accurate count.
As a result, fewer and fewer blackjack teams can be found in the casinos today. Team blackjack has become a thing of the past.